The incomparable jazz singer Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was nicknamed “Sassy” and “The Divine One.” She had a glorious voice and left a legacy of recordings with a singing style that made an indelible impression on the music scene of her time — and continues to inspire the singers of today.
Evidently the Newark-born singer made an impression on playwright Stephanie Berry’s brother and sister-in-law whose married life together serves as the core of her play with music at the Crossroads Theatre. Berry conjures up Vaughan — here in the guise of superb singer Ashley Davis — to stir up memories in the play’s married couple, Elaine (Marva Hicks) and Russell Torbry (Curtiss Cook.)
Serving as a muse to the couple’s 30-year marriage, Vaughan exists in the play as a dream and an illusory participant in their lives. The vision of Vaughan singing at one of her last gigs in a nightclub comes to Elaine in her vanity mirror as she sits before it in a melancholy mood. The device serves as a window to the past for the aging Elaine, the mother of four and wife of a once impassioned young man who introduced her — a classical music enthusiast — to jazz.
In “Sarah Sings,” Vaughan’s life becomes integrated in the story that spans the years of their marriage and four children. The time-line is rather vague with numerous and somewhat awkwardly devised flashbacks and forwards — ranging from the hey-day of jazz in the 1940s through the Civil Rights Era and Vaughan’s appearance at the White House — a moment that includes the play’s most interesting but short-lived plot in which one of the children becomes a social activist.
At its best, this loosely structured play provides a platform for some terrific singing by Davis, who nails the Vaughan style even as she asserts her character’s sassy nature.
The play’s ensuing conflicts remain somewhat elusive, and the mix of story and song and have little dramatic impact — despite the depiction of Vaughan’s life, career, and multiple marriages against the comparative stable relationship of two increasingly devoted fans.
Nevertheless, audiences will enjoy Davis’ rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Tenderly,” “Time After Time,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Body and Soul,” and “In My Solitude” —with some cleverly integrated to define a specific moment.
Likewise, Hick’s Elaine sings beautifully and occasionally becomes a collaborating second voice to Vaughan in some of the play’s most imaginative segments. She also does a cool rendition of “Cherokee.” Cook’s mellow voice is also impressive. But it is his standout performance of a noticeably unfulfilled man totally consumed by his love for jazz that gives him a heads up as the play’s most interesting character. In the most memorable scene, Russell finally meets Sarah face to face and a cue that leads them into song and a jazzy jitterbug.
In addition to the play being generally unwieldy, poorly structured, and in need of some judicious pruning, it is also confusingly staged by director Jeffery V. Thompson. However, it offers a surprising number of effective musical moments. Chalk that up mainly to Davis’ dynamic singing. The costume designs by Taracheia Fleming are stand-out while the two-level setting designed by Chris Cumberbatch isn’t. That leads me to say that the singing of the songs is standout, but the wobbly play they inhabit isn’t.
Incidentally, this is the last production to be presented in the theater that opened in 1991 to make way for new a performing arts complex for Crossroads, the George Street Playhouse, and other members that will comprise the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
Sarah Sings a Love Story, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, March 26. $25 to $55. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.